Distance: 45 miles (71km)
Grade: Moderate: never quite difficult but with enough undulations to avoid being labelled as ‘easy’. The climbs are long as opposed to steep and the road surface needs to be respected
- Download the route here
“No, no… it hasn’t worked… oh.”
Not for the first time, the combined efforts of the little plastic box of silicon in my hand and the big metal silicon box on my desk have conspired to let me down, royally.
Yes, uploading a GPX file to our GPS hasn’t worked – again – and we’re now, despite it only being 9am, staring defeat squarely in the chops. Without its helpful prompts and cues, pedalling off into the Lake District’s intricate network of back roads, with only a hastily scribbled list of village names to go by, feels at best daunting and at worst stupid.
The GPS had worked fine last night, but now nothing. While technology has clearly let us down, hopefully local knowledge has got our backs. Today, that knowledge is in the form of Hope Technology-sponsored rider, cyclo – cross obsessive and all – round Cumbrian force of nature, Adam Brayton.
I do my best to fecklessly mangle the pronunciations of several Lakeland villages as Adam politely sips his tea and nods in easy agreement as he stitches our planned B-road loop together in his head.
Adam and I are joined by Hope’s brand manager Rachael Walker and one of the Scottish Borders’ fastest mountain bike racers, Ruaridh Cunningham. They both stir their steaming hot drinks slowly, sneaking glances through the window at the distinctly grey, wet and miserable conditions awaiting us on the other side of the glass.
The Lake District is one of the wettest areas of the UK at the best of times, but was hit hard by the succession of storms that battered the UK over Christmas and into 2016. And despite the TV crews and rolling newscasts having moved on, large swathes of the area are still feeling the impact – we’ve already had to modify our original 50-mile route once to dodge washed-away bridges and damaged roads.
Fortunately, we had alternatives. There are simply so many great loops and cafes to link up in the Lakes, and virtually everyone you speak to has their own classic route that you need to try. In fact, you’ll easily spend more time planning your Lakes ride than actually doing it – even when you don’t have Mother Nature’s vengeance to deal with.
Our original planned route was proffered by Andy Stephenson at long-established Lakes bike shop Bike Treks, and fortunately our modifications – adding a bit more time on some quieter roads in and around the stunning backdrop of the National Park – didn’t make the ride we were facing any less enticing.
The Lake District National Park is England’s largest and hosts some stunning landscapes, its highest mountain and – as the name suggests – plenty of lakes. In short, it’s paradise on two wheels.
Having torn ourselves from the central heating and fresh ginger cake of the Threlkeld Coffee Shop, we get things underway with our jackets still firmly in place.
Spinning the legs out helps build some heat but there’s no avoiding the bitterly cold air seeping into our lungs with every gulp. After passing a country gent resplendent in a deerstalker and full tweeds walking a pack of hunting hounds, we make our way from Threlkeld’s relaxed lanes to the frankly terrifying A66 cyclepath. It’s a necessary evil, and fortunately it’s raised from road height, which at least offers a bit of sanctuary. But the speed and spray from the lorries and motor homes thundering along one of the Lakes’ main routes is enough to focus our minds on getting this phase of the ride over with as quickly as possible.
Adam shouts something at me that gets lost in the din, but the message gets through when he darts up a lane, and I follow his wheel as we gratefully leave the chaos behind.
Now this is proper back-road riding, to the extent that we’re not even technically on a road anymore. “This is the old road,” Adam informs me while unbolting a gate – though looking at the broken tarmac and faded patches of paint lying before us, the explanation wasn’t needed.
Caution is clearly needed, and we take it in turns navigating around sometimes road-wide, rim-deep puddles that are often concealing jagged potholes. No surprise, then, that our pace is on the cautious side. One by one we make our way through a further five gates, and I manage to stand in an overshoe-deep puddle that freezes my left foot for the rest of the day.
AS YOU LAKE IT
There’s no denying the ‘feel’ of the Lakes by now – and I don’t mean my frigid foot. Our road winds gradually up towards the hills, with vast tracts of copper and murky green farmland sprawling out on either side of us. We soon rejoin a fully operational B-road again, leaving the perils of gates, puddles and potholes behind.
The road through Mosedale is all but deserted and our small group starts to stretch its legs a bit. It’s the sort of section that if you’ve ridden in the Lakes before, you’ll know to take your time on and enjoy. We’re surrounded by hills, though, so any flat sections are typically all too brief.
The stone walls that line the route are occasionally broken by the entrances to farmhouses, some of which are showing their age and others clearly having had a lot of money spent on them. Polished Italian sports cars sit on neatly raked red gravel drives in front of the most impressive examples of the latter.
Cycling in the Lake District has definitely become more popular thanks to the Tour de France and Tour of Britain hosting stages in or near the area in recent years. When the milder summer months arrive, so too do the two-wheeled tourists, and there’s plenty of evidence that the local economy is feeling the benefits.
That said, the potholes continue to catch us out. Adam even takes a dramatic dive towards me at one point and I’m forced to steer back into him to keep us both upright.
Obsessed with snaring ‘seggies’ on Strava, he’s soon back on point, sprinting clear in order to claim some virtual kudos as we approach Skelton. As we round the inviting-looking Dog and Gun pub in the middle of the village it’s decided we should stop at the next available hostelry and stock up on some food while attempting to thaw/dry out a bit.
The countryside around the quiet, field-lined roads progressively becomes more undulating as we make our way through further villages before arriving in Greystoke. Fronted by a village green and a teen sitting his tractor driving test, we decide the Boot and Shoe with its log fire fits the bill perfectly.
NO BLACK SHEEP HERE
This is of course another bonus of planning rides in the region: you’re never more than a couple of miles from a welcoming pub, coffee shop or tea-room. We resist the temptation to enjoy a Black Sheep ale and order some coffees instead.
If you’re wondering, Greystoke is indeed the same town Tarzan’s parents are said to have hailed from in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic Tarzan of the Apes. Signed pictures of the various actors to have played the loincloth-wearing monkeybotherer in Hollywood movies adorn the walls on the way to the gents and spark a debate as to whether or not one of them also played Flash Gordon. The jury never got round to a verdict on that one, sadly.
Time suitably wasted and bellies full, we head back outside in time for the first break in the rain since we set off. The route south features narrow roads across barren terrain, then a kick upwards before a flat-out descent into Watermillock, with Ullswater dominating the horizon. The day’s first real climbs prove light but punchy – the lake’s dark, navy blue waters stretch like a scar across the base of the hills, but I manage only the most fleeting of glances.
The descent is steep, narrow and mostly blind, with the edges of the road surface crumbling in parts. My own disc brakes confidently shirk off the speed when needed, but I’m genuinely fearful for the others as the soapy shudder of rubber on carbon fibre rims pierces the air.
GET YOUR KICKS ON THE A66
Ullswater is the second biggest ‘lake’ in the ‘district’, and its 60m – deep waters are populated by some pretty choppy – looking waves as we wind around its debris-leaden shores. However, the view is again hard to enjoy fully – this time because of the heavy traffic forced onto the road by the flooding in nearby Pooley Bridge. It’s the first A – road traffic we’ve seen since the A66 and the road’s narrowness isn’t exactly helping anyone’s patience.
We turn off onto the main climb of the day – the long winch up to Dockray and on to Troutbeck. Frustrated by having to settle for furtive glances of the view, we pull over and risk the dangers of cooling down too much for a couple of minutes to take in the sight of the beautiful – and very full – Ullswater.
It’s still very cold, though, and the others are keen to press on. They each take turns standing on the pedals to up the pace at the front, but otherwise the ascent is smooth and comfortable enough to take in the saddle.
As we pass the Royal Hotel the wide main road duly gives way to the tighter confines of a B – road, and the further up we go the more things begin to thin out. The road eventually narrows to a sinewy strip, and the final slopes of the climb push us out of the saddle. When it finally levels out we can glimpse snow on the hills, where horses are huddled together in their jackets. Like us, they show absolutely no inclination to take them off.
A final high – speed drop back down the A66’s cyclepath and we’re back in Threlkeld only to find the coffee shop closed. Still, warmth and dryness are now just mere minutes away and we hurriedly take it in turns to change out of sopping Lycra in the backs of the vans.
THE GREAT LAKES
As we mentioned earlier, you’re so spoilt for choice when planning a Lakes route that it’s easy to get lost in the act – and just as easy to lose your way out on the road, especially if your GPS decides to stop playing along as ours did.
Without Adam’s in-depth knowledge of the area’s back roads there’s a fair chance we’d still be there, or we’d have played it safe and ended up restricted to the drudgery of the cyclepaths.
Get the Lake District right, though, and no matter what the weather is doing, there are few places in the UK that can beat it for entertaining roads, challenging climbs and stunning landscapes.
Threlkeld and the northern Lakes are most easily accessed from the M6. Exit 40 is marked Penrith and takes you onto the A66. Threlkeld is just off the main road around 15 minutes down the road. The nearest station is Penrith, on the West Coast Main Line, which has direct services from London Euston, Carlisle and Manchester Airport.
WHERE TO STAY
The Horse & Farrier is a local inn with good food and comfortable rooms. When it’s cold there’s a fire on and when it’s warm there’s a beer garden. Works for us.
FOOD AND DRINK
Threlkeld Coffee Shop offers a good array of freshly baked cakes and hot drinks. We’d also recommend the Boot and Shoe in Greystoke for mid-ride refreshments – and a bit of Tarzan nostalgia.
WHAT TO DO
There’s a mining museum in Threlkeld – after all, who doesn’t love a mining museum? Failing that, film buffs may enjoy a visit to Sleddale Hall, where Withnail and I was filmed, which is less than an hour’s drive away.